In Two Clashing Conventions, a Clear Choice for the Nation

By the time the grand finale arrived, the baton had been passed, the themes had been laid, each constituency in the Democratic coalition beckoned into the party tent. All that was left was for Hillary Clinton to step into history.

"Tonight we’ve reached a milestone in our nation's march toward a more perfect union: the first time that a major party has nominated a woman for President," Clinton said in her acceptance speech Thursday night in Philadelphia. "When any barrier falls in America, for anyone, it clears the way for everyone. After all, when there are no ceilings, the sky's the limit."

Lines like this formed the core of an address constructed as a rebuttal to the one delivered by Donald Trump. "I alone can fix it," Trump said last week in Cleveland. "No one gets through life alone," Clinton shot back. She was as buoyant as he was bleak. And the vastly different visions reflected two conventions that clashed in mood and message, tactics and tone.

For four days in Cleveland, Republicans painted images of a country beset by crime, besieged by violent visitors and led by political elites who are either too stupid or corrupt to diagnose the problem, let alone cure it. "Make America Great Again" is a nostalgic rallying cry, sounded by a strongman who promises to return a reeling nation to law and order.

The pageant in Philadelphia was an extended rebuttal to this grim view. Clinton's campaign theme, "Stronger Together," was emblazoned on the placards hoisted by delegates and echoed by a diverse procession of speakers. They responded to Trump's despair with defiance. "We do not scare easily," Vice President Joe Biden declared in one of the week's best speeches. "We never bow, we never bend, we never break when confronted with crisis. No, we endure, we overcome and we always, always, always move forward."

In one night, Democrats had as many black speakers — 18 — as the total number of black Republican delegates, according to NBC News. Every element of the sprawling Democratic coalition was on display, from African Americans to Hispanics, young women to the LGBT community. There were stage segments devoted to Native Americans, veterans, the disabled, even Republicans disillusioned by their party-crashing nominee.

It was a minor upset that the Democrats appeared to come out of their convention more visibly divided. The festivities in Philadelphia were marked by protest chants and periodic walkouts. Despite Bernie Sanders' pleas for unity, a sizable chunk of his supporters, drawn to party politics for the first time by their quixotic standard-bearer, refused to fall in line. As Clinton spoke, scattered pockets of the crowd held aloft signs touting Sanders and Green Party candidate Jill Stein; the nominee's supporters broke into chants of "Hillary!" to drown out the protest chants that broke out.

Dissent aside, the Democrats staged a convention that was as carefully coordinated as the Republicans were haphazard. They lured A-list names, while Trump's "showbiz" soiree subsisted on D-list celebs. And their sunny vision, some Republicans conceded, was a stark contrast to the gloom and doom Trump peddled. "Watching Democrats talk about America the way Republicans used to talk about America," former George W. Bush spokesman Tony Fratto tweeted Wednesday night.

Will two weeks of competing party infomercials change the race? Probably not much. Despite a series of stumbles, from a plagiarism flap to a dramatic rebuke from GOP runner-up Ted Cruz, Trump got his convention bounce. It's too early to know how Clinton's will compare, but the spate of star speakers — including two Presidents — suggests she will too.

The themes planted over the past two weeks reflect two different wagers on the mood of the nation. Trump believes that in a time of economic dislocation, rising fears of terrorism and frustration with elite institutions, voters are seeking are blunt-spoken outsider. Clinton cast herself as an experienced leader who will carry on Barack Obama's progressive program. This is a familiar juxtaposition: four years ago, Obama's campaign slogan was "Forward," while Mitt Romney's supporters talked at every rally about "taking their country back."

Being the candidate of continuity carries its own set of risks. For many Trump voters, the stability Clinton trumpets just means more of the "rigged system" the Republican assails. Clinton acknowledged this. "Some of you are frustrated, even furious," she said. "And you know what? You're right."

The back end of Clinton's speech was an extended argument that Americans still prefer a steady pro over a swaggering amateur to clean up those problems. "In the end, it comes down to what Donald Trump doesn't get: that America is great, because America is good," Clinton said. "He's offering empty promises. And what are we offering? A bold agenda to improve the lives of people across our country."

Was it poetry? No. But the history of presidential elections suggests optimism usually prevails. Clinton is betting that as strange as this one has been, the rule will hold once more in November.

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